The Rise of the Celebrity Chef
Do these chefs deserve the attention and adulation they get in the age of social media?
They are all over media, all of a sudden. Now, even private school-educated brats who grew up with kusineras want to be them, making their parents shell out large sums of money so they can learn how to make a proper hollandaise in humid kitchens. Chefs have become the new rock stars: if you don't want to be them, then you most probably want to sleep with them.
In a country that remains socially divided and class-conscious, working in the kitchen is a surprising claim to fame. It makes one wonder what changed. How are these glorified kusineros suddenly getting more followers on Instagram than Prince William?
I turn to food industry insiders for their take on this global phenomenon that has struck our island nation as well, as I caught some of them awake late at night—probably scouring social media sites for food porn or hoping to catch No
Reservation re-runs on cable. Sassy TV Host (STH), known for his cheeky sound bites, is surprisingly pensive when I ask him the formula to becoming a celebrity chef. He pines for the days (from 1960s to 1990s, to be exact) when a chef had to possess “a combination of any of three ingredients: real talent and creativity, combined with real experience in the real world.” He points out how Nora Daza’s bestselling cookbooks catapulted her to fame; how a slew of “successful and well-reviewed restaurants” made Larry J. Cruz a legend; and how all-around cool guy and renaissance man (he’s a champion fencer and painter, among other things) Gene Gonzalez continues to enjoy the respect of both media and his peers thanks to “an eloquence that makes for good copy. . .backed up by excellent menus and consistent dishes.”
But how things have changed, he observes. STH recognizes how TV is a “tremendous launching pad,” showcasing a chef’s talent in a way that is very rarely afforded to most. But, as expected in show business, “getting a chef to star in a show is not usually about skill—although that is important, too—but really more of good looks and good English.” Are we talking about Erwan Heussaff? “Overrated,” he deadpans.
“But he’s such a beautiful man!” exclaims normally Demure Food Editor (DFE) about the popular TV host/restaurateur. I agree; should we hate on him because he has perfect hair? Is it such a travesty to gaze upon his chiseled pecs beneath that deep V-neck while he massacres a chicken piccata? “He should at least know how to cook,” declares Chinito Chef (CC). He expresses his frustration over Heussaff’s weak grasp of basic cooking skills in his Tastemade videos. And yet, you watch those, I pointed out. “His videos are well-made,” CC admits, “but he needs to learn more. Soon, people will catch on that he doesn’t completely know what he’s doing.”
Chat room gossip shifts towards other targets—such as the TV contest winner whose head has swelled to massive proportions, much to the dismay of his previously-supportive producer. There’s the conceited restaurateur who resents constructive criticism, his unremarkable string of restaurants enjoying consistent buzz thanks to the endorsement of celebrity friends.
But while some names get eye roll emojis, these food industry followers are also generous with their praise for those whom they feel deserve the accolades. Sandy Daza is untouchable in terms of pedigree and talent. DFE states, “(Daza) can definitely cook. He just needs to make his servings (at Wooden Spoon) bigger.” Chef Tatung Sarthou, with the almost simultaneous launches of his TV show and long-awaited book on Filipino cookery, is a celebrity that certainly earned his stripes through smarts and mileage.
JP Anglo appears to be a younger Gene Gonzalez, being quite the Renaissance man himself, with tapings and surfing taking up equal parts of his time, even as he runs his Sarsa chain and the more high-end Kafé Batwan in Rockwell, Makati. “Anglo’s restaurants are well-received, serving delicious food,” DFE points out. “So he can play around as much as he wants.” His laidback style has also made him a likable colleague. “He knows how to balance. As a chef, you need to do other things to de-stress, gather inspiration,” CC imparts. “That's why Anglo is always fresh and his dishes are inspired.”
Surprisingly, the aforementioned object of disdain is also admired for his determination. “In a way, I think Erwan deserves his success because he’s hardworking. Mas bilib ako sa masipag kaysa
sa magaling,” CC says. “Magaling is talent; it’s something that comes naturally. Masipag gains skill and experience. Developing a skill means learning how to do something and to keep doing it well.”
If gathering a million followers on Instagram is a skill or having a dish be the most liked on social media that day be the new measure of success, then perhaps these celebrity chefs are good at what they do. But we still crave more than that, despite our cultural fascination with celebrities. It seems that popularity these days is misconstrued for respect, and that is where our confusion lies. This insider’s comment pretty much sums it up: “Who is the Pinoy equivalent of David Chang? Or Mario Batali? Parang wala.”